Things I Know 122 of 365: I avoided the educational flea market

You can tell a lot about a person by what they sell at their garage sale. What kind of books they read, what kind of music they listen to …

– Wynetta Wilson

People are selling their old junk across the street from my coffee shop. Twice a year, whatever secret society organizes flea markets brings 100+ stalls to set up shop around Philadelphia’s historic Eastern State Penitentiary. I’ve walked the stalls a few times in years past, careful each time to leave my money at home.

I don’t need more junk.

In fact, I need less junk. My impending move to Cambridge is helping to hammer this point home.

As is usually the way with my brain, home-thinking has seeped into school-thinking.

At the beginning of the year, I told my G11 students we’d be conducting an experiment with our class reading for the year. Rather than whole-class text studies, students would have the choice of reading whatever they wanted.

As an experiment, I explained, this approach would be subject to refinement.

That’s how teachers collect junk. We try new things. They don’t work. We try all new new things. Rinse. Repeat.

The reading of books of choice was a bit rocky.

My initial plan was to have students meet in small groups with other students who were reading texts of the same genres.

They would do this once a week and report out on what they heard.

I hadn’t planned for just how many genres and shades of genres exist.

Coordinating genre groups each week as students of various reading speeds moved from one text to another proved a logistical nightmare.

I was making work for little return.

I could have given up, but instead decided to revise.

Students would meet in small groups once a week, but group composition would vary from teacher-organized to student-organized to random.

It worked much better.

As an unintended consequence, the depth of discussions was improved as well. Students were working to make connections across texts and challenging the assertions of those connections.

Experiment = Success.

Not so much.

By the end of the second quarter, I needed more information and evidence of student learning. The summaries of small group conversations were helpful in highlighting the ideas that came up in organic conversation, but I had no record of other key concepts that simply didn’t get discussed.

It certainly would have been easy at that point to junk the experiment and try something new. That would have disrupted class and meant adopting wholly new structures and procedures. Instead I sat down with my G11 counterpart and our two literacy interns from UPenn.

I explained the problem and we collaborated to find a solution.

Using Google Docs, we would create a template spreadsheet that each student would access and create a copy of. Each column of the spreadsheet would be headed by a pertinent piece of literacy knowledge: theme, symbolism, point of view, setting, etc.

Once per week, the class would fill in a new row of their spreadsheets based on the reading they’d done since the previous week. Five categories were identified as needing to be filled in each week. For the remaining columns, students could choose three each week without doubling up on a category until they’d contributed to each one. By the end of the cycle, I’d have evidence of students’ learning across each assessment anchor identified by the PA state assessment.

These self reflections would be completed in addition to the small group summaries.

I needed a third component as well.

Asking students to reflect on their reading through writing alone wouldn’t give me a clear enough picture of what they were learning and experiencing as they read. Similarly, passive reflection wouldn’t push them to think more deeply the next time they picked up their books.

Back to Google Docs, we created another template spreadsheet.

This one included the standard identification number, the text of the standard and a series of discussion questions about each standard respectively.

My intern, my student assistant teacher and I split the class into three groups and planned to sit down one-on-one with the students in our groups to discuss whatever they were reading. We’d focus on a few discussion questions during each meeting and record their answers and our notes in successive columns headed by the date of our discussions.

These one-on-one conversations helped to model what it looks like when we talk about reading, and also gave us the chance to push students’ thinking on the topics being discussed. If a student offered only a description of the physical space within a plot when discussing setting, we could probe more deeply to generate a better understanding of how readers can think about plot.

The small group summaries, individual reflection logs and one-on-one discussions helped to identify the junk already present in the experiment – the empty space. Rather than calling the approach to reading instruction a failure because of all the things I hadn’t thought to think about, I stopped, sought help from my peers and adjusted course.

As we head to the end of the year, more needs to be adjusted. Implementing such systematic structures in the classroom requires a greater element of planning on my part. In the next version of this approach, I would set a schedule for one-on-one conversations. In the busyness of teaching, they were often the first piece to be pushed off until later.

I’d also do a better job of using the student reading reflection logs to guide instruction. After the first few weeks, it became clear where students were lacking the language to speak richly about some literary concepts. In the next version, I would plan holes in the teaching calendar for drop-in lessons designed to provide remediation as it became necessary.

The approach, unlike much of what is in my basement, wasn’t junk.

Like the stuff in my basement, the difficulty and work inherent in refining this choice-based approach to reading could have meant its discarding at several steps along the way in favor of something newer or shinier.

I’m glad I stayed with it rather than becoming the educational equivalent of the throngs of people picking over junk at the flea market hoping to find that one thing that will make their lives complete.